Why didn’t the ‘Global Frequency’ pilot work?
Many who have seen the rejected pilot for Global Frequency have wondered why it
was never picked up as a series. Having just watched it, I think I can cite one
very good reason.
First, some background. Like many readers of graphic
novels, I am a big fan of the work of Warren Ellis. In particular, I enjoyed
his 2002 limited-run series Global Frequency
, which reads like a post-modern reinvention of Mission: Impossible. Though I’ve had a
DVD bootleg of the WB’s 2004 TV-series pilot for Global Frequency sitting on my shelf for a few years, I didn’t get
around to actually watching it until a few nights ago (completely unaware that,
following the successful feature adaptation of Ellis’s R.E.D., a new pilot for Global Frequency is underway).
The first pilot, which was produced by comic-book scribe John Rogers (now the showrunner on the
acclaimed TNT series Leverage), was a stylish hour of
entertainment. Adapted from the series’ first issue, “Bombhead,” it took a
number of liberties with the concept, but none that I considered ill-advised.
At the heart of the series were Miranda Zero (played by Michelle Forbes) and the
coordinator Aleph (Aimee Garcia).
Fronting the show, however, were two new characters, Sean Flynn (Josh Hopkins) and Dr. Katrina
Finch (Jenni Baird), who
ostensibly were intended to be the leads from week to week.
So, with all that going for it, why didn’t the pilot get
There are a number of theories. One plausible explanation
I’ve heard is that the show lost its “rabbi” at the network (i.e., the
executive who championed its production). Such a setback might be enough to
sink any project, no matter how superbly it had been executed. It’s also
possible that, without someone advocating for the show inside the corporate
offices of the network, the series’ per-episode price tag simply was too high
for someone else to risk picking up its banner.
I think there might be another factor to consider,
however: the pilot itself was flawed.
Specifically, the writing staff fumbled the ending.
Now, I can already hear many of you protesting, “But it
was faithful to Ellis’s original ending!” That’s true. It was a solid ending
for a dark, gritty comic-book story, and, had the pilot been commissioned by
HBO or Showtime, it would have been equally appropriate for the pilot. But this
was a pilot—essentially, an audition—for a network weekly
television series, one that has to worry about advertiser revenues and a fickle
viewing public. With few exceptions, the audiences for network TV simply don’t
like their fare this dark.
However, it’s not the darkness of the ending that bothers
me. If the story had been structured to make clear there was no other solution
and embraced this terrible, inevitable outcome from the outset, I would have
applauded the writing staff for the bravery of their creative choice. Where
they went wrong is that they went to a great deal of trouble to establish an
alternative solution in the Act One climax, and then all the
characters—including the two who should have known better—failed to
put the better solution to use in the Act Four climax.
Beware: this is about to get very spoiler-ific.
In the original comic-book story, the threat is a Soviet
sleeper agent with the power of apportation—he can psionically create
wormholes that enable him to move objects from one place to another without
traversing the space between. In other words, one moment, his desired object is
miles away, and the next it’s in front of him. His Soviet handlers enhanced his
abilities with an implanted chip to enable him to move larger objects across
greater distances, and then trained (read: brainwashed) him to apportate a
nuclear bomb from its holding site in Russia into the heart of San Francisco.
Over the course of twenty-two fast-paced pages, an
ex-military special-ops soldier tracks down the renegade sleeper agent, who is
going mad, losing control of his abilities, and on a buildup to finishing his
mission because the chip inside his head has rusted, rotted, and is shorting
out. Ultimately, the only solution the soldier has is to destroy the chip
inside the sleeper’s head by putting a bullet through it at a very specific
angle. He corners the renegade, puts his pistol to the man’s head, and
then—in a classic Ellis twist—the spy helps correct the soldier’s
aim, explaining simply, “You would have missed.”
accomplished. The world is saved once again—and none the wiser.
The key change in the plot was to make the threat into a
man who emits devastating pulses of disintegrating energy, rather than a
teleporter of objects. This was a good change, in that it kept the threat
specific and localized, and avoided splitting the focus between the spy and
some remote bomb that might not even be there any longer. To fill out the
43-minute running time of the episode, there is some deftly executed detective
work, beginning with a visually striking and compelling cold open (which was
cribbed from another Ellis tale, the Batman/Planetary crossover). The
production value was terrific, which is to be expected considering how much
I’ve heard they spent on it. The performances were spot-on, and despite the
absence of chemistry between Baird and Hopkins, it crackled with potential for
One of the first details Flynn and Finch notice about the
scenes of devastation wrought by the Radioactive Man (RM) is that glass seems
unaffected by his disruptions: windows remain unbroken, fluids remain
unvaporized, etc. They track RM to his apartment, where he tells them he
doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Then he suffers a seizure, causing another
disruption event. Finch, thinking on her feet, pulls Flynn inside a
glass-walled shower stall and turns on the water, soaking them both. A fiery
burst of energy fills the apartment, blasts out the walls … but leaves the
glass walls of the shower—and our two field agents—unharmed. Finch
explains to Flynn:
Whatever energy field he sets off, it doesn’t interact well with liquids. (noting Flynn’s reaction) Glass. The
glass shower. On a molecular level, glass is a liquid.
Several minutes later, they track the fleeing Radioactive
Man with help from Aleph. RM is heading toward an electrical substation—“down
by the waterfront,” Aleph says. The word to note in that sentence is waterfront. Pay attention. There will be
a quiz in a moment.
The plot jumps through a few more hoops as we finish Act
Three and move into the final act. As the final seconds to RM’s next seizure
tick away, and he is charged to capacity by the energy flowing through the
substation, everyone shouts at Flynn (who in the pilot is a suspended Boston
police officer rather than a former Army Special Forces soldier) to shoot RM in
the head. Miranda Zero, Aleph, Finch, and even RM himself urge Flynn to pull
the trigger. As in the original comic book, RM helps Flynn adjust his aim.
I was waiting for the twist, the moment that would enable
the hero to pluck victory from the maw of defeat … and then Flynn shoots the
Radioactive Man in the head. Bang. Dead. Flynn drops his pistol and walks away.
Two minutes later, he accepts a job working for Miranda Zero.
My jaw went slack. I couldn’t believe it. It was the most
tone-deaf storytelling decision I’d seen in years. I couldn’t imagine any
network executive green-lighting a series based on that pilot, for one simple
reason: the non-lethal solution was staring the producers in the face the
They are in a substation on the waterfront. Outside the building is San Francisco
Bay—a huge body of water. Which
is a liquid. Which, as was clearly
established at the end of Act One, will contain and neutralize RM’s energy
pulse of doom.
Watching the pilot, when the climactic moment arrived, I
expected a crescendo of tension, everyone screaming at Flynn to pull the
trigger, to do the quick thing, the easy thing. I even expected the producers
to keep the superb Ellis touch of RM fixing Flynn’s aim.
But then I wanted Flynn to turn, shoot the lock off a
door at the back of the room, and drag RM to it and heave him out, over a
railing, into the bay—which half a second later lights up from Oakland to
Sausalito, as the bay absorbs the pulse. Seconds later, with Flynn and Finch
watching the dark water in anxious anticipation, RM surfaces—alive, the
chip in his head fried and dead.
The city is saved, an innocent man has been spared a
grisly fate, and Flynn has proved his worthiness as an investigator and a
hero—not just to Miranda Zero and his partner but to us, the viewing
audience. It would have established Flynn as not only effective but morally grounded—a quality perhaps
lacking in the Global Frequency’s community of experts. Moments such as that
are what enable viewers to emotionally invest in series’ point-of-view
characters—a lesson John Rogers applies with smashing success on Leverage.
Could this story change have made the difference in
whether the Global Frequency pilot
was picked up? Maybe; maybe not. But that’s not the point.
The point is that, by establishing the solution to the
story’s crisis in Act One and failing to deploy it at the climax of Act Four,
the writers of the first Global Frequency
pilot failed to observe the trope known as Chekov’s
Gun. Don’t give the two lead characters the answer to the problem and make
them too dumb to use it, especially when lives are at stake.
Let’s hope that scriptwriter Scott Nimerfro takes the lessons
of the first pilot to heart as he tackles the teleplay for the CW’s upcoming
second Global Frequency pilot.